A Fatal Loss of Face
Redefining - and radically cheapening - the human species in the eyes of its constituent members.
Back in the 1980s, when I worked as the editor of leftish magazines in Ireland, I came to see that photographers were often more journalistic in their existential curiosity than the scribbling kind of NUJ member. I could not escape that the lensmen who shuffled into my office were always odd, watchful customers, who gazed into the souls of their subjects and seemed to look upon their fellow humans as unfinished entities, or maybe as beings lacking the necessary knowledge to make themselves whole. Once, while taking my photograph for a byline picture, a photographer started to punch me in the chest. Asked for an explanation, he replied, ‘I need you to react.’
Later, flying to an assignment abroad, I was accompanied by one of these watchmen of the lens. Making idle conversation, I remarked on the palaver of feeding and watering us passengers, a process requiring the constant attention of several stewards and hostesses for most of the flight. I ventured something like, ‘We are unable to remain sitting here for a few hours without being distracted and pampered.’ The snapper looked at me strangely. ‘It is dangerous to look too closely at human beings,’ he said. ‘The illusion soon begins to disintegrate.’
I took him to mean that the images we habitually employ of our fellow humans tend to filter out much of the grislier and ghastlier aspects. It’s true, of course: we visualize the mythic Elvis Presley not in his dying moments on the toilet bowl but in the throes of the spastic dance that changed the world in ways that could never be deemed any kind of normal. When we look upon one another, we see either specific persons known to us, with distinctive features and personalities, or unique variants on the generic description of a human person: four-limbed, forked, head and torso, dressed in one of the uniforms of the species, such as trousers, dresses, jackets, hats. We have not for some time been prone to seeing each other in the terms summoned up by Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morality: man defined by ‘repulsive’ traits disapproved of by himself: ‘impure begetting, disgusting nourishment in the womb, vileness of the matter out of which man develops, revolting stench, excretion of saliva, urine, and feces’. To carry such notions of ourselves around in our imaginations would soon reduce each of us to a state of constant perturbation, disintegrating our desire to be alive.
But this is something like what appears to be among the likely destinations — if not actually an objective — of the continuing measures being implemented for the alleged defeat of SARS-CoV-2, the virus said to cause the now mythic, if not actually mythical, condition Covid-19. The Covid pseudo-crisis has been used by political establishments across the globe to implement something that, intentionally or otherwise, will have the effect of redefining, and radically cheapening, the human species in the eyes of its constituent members.
At bottom, so to speak, one of most profound existential effects of the Covid-19 lockdown and 'new normal' impositions has been to magnify in the eyes of each human person the essential biological nature of the others. We are being precipitously trained to see one another at the nano, sub-cellular level, in a kind of quantum-seeing, microscopic viewfinder that redirects our attention from the integral person to the smallest conceivable discrete units of ourselves and the colonies of foreign bodies that inhabit each of ours.
It used to be believed that the human body played host to ten times as many non-human cells as human ones. Currently, the ratio is thought to be somewhere between 3:1 and even-Stephen, though these figures do not include viruses, which exceed bacteria by many multiples. The human gut alone contains between 500 and 1,000 different species of bacteria. This ecology is designed so that most of these organisms provide nutrients for the host body and combine to achieve a balance that protects the human host against infection. But this knowledge does little to dispel an instinctive distaste upon contemplation of our deeper biological natures, which is why our cultures have been constructed to dissuade us from dwelling upon such matters.
But the shift now underway, ramping up the emphases on infection-risk and face-coverings, and the constant reminders to ‘avoid close contact with others’, may gradually be inducing us to think of ourselves in the Nietzschean terms we have hitherto eschewed. We may come to a time, for example, when on espying your handsome brother-in-law, Paul, walking towards you on the driving range, you see not the six-foot-nothing blonde of your teenage jealousies but a heaving mass of resident microorganisms, all with separate existences, and theoretically some entitlement to recognition of individual dignity on their own account. If you begin to think of Paul in this way, your prior sense of him disintegrates into a desolate but insistent awareness of the more than 50% of his bulk that is actually not Paul at all, and so it becomes necessary to reimagine him — and yourself — from the beginning.
It’s already happening. Increasingly, beholding one another in the street — masked, visored, alert for the slightest incursion into our personal six foot of space, jumping out of our skins at the slightest cough, sniffle or sneeze — it is becoming clear that we no longer look upon one another and perceive the iconic shape of the human being in history — limbs, trunk, head, face, gaze, smile — but see instead a moving blob of festering matter, biofluids, glands, adipoctytes, viruses, microbiota, fungi, yeasts, acids, maggots, phage, proteins, stool and mucus — oozing, sweating, belching, snorting, wind-breaking, weeping, puking, seeping, urinating, excreting organisms riddled with mostly imperceptible orifices, from which are expelled unpleasant and deadly liquids, substances, gases, odours and pathogens. To paraphrase the Killers' song, are we human or are we (bio)hazard?
How strange that, while emotional incontinence is increasingly valued and praised, physical human effusions are ever more anathematised. Where once human beings aspired to being gods, we now appear to have entered the final phase of our self-degradation: perceiving ourselves predominantly as a pestilence on the earth.
In The Human Person and Natural Law, Karol Wojtyla wrote about ‘the essence of a thing being taken as the basis of all the actualization of the thing,’ which in human terms meant perceiving the unity represented by the ensouled being within the external body. The essence of the human person was not to be found in the biological matter comprising his physical totality: he was also creativity and will and emotion and conscience and subjectivity and self-reflection — all parts of the human creativity that cause us to rise above the Nietzschean reduction. But these qualities may not long survive the nascent nano notion of humanity. Perhaps the most emphatic and lasting effect of Covid-19 will be to shift the entirety of our capacities for self-perceitons from the largely-metaphysical to the overwhelming phenomenological plane. It is not far-fetched to fear that, under the attrition of the lockdown psyop, our personal and collective self-image as human beings is dissolving, bringing an end to the millennia-old sense of the human person as an embodied soul on an earthly soujourn.
This is not merely a religious matter. Christian anthropology, seeping upwards into modern human rights law, makes visible a version of the human person imbued with natural rights, freedoms, dignity. These concepts are variously elaborated in constitutional texts with words like 'antecedent', 'anterior', ‘inalienable’, 'unconditional' and so forth. Secularly speaking, there is an tautological dimension to all this: I have dignity as a human person because I am a human person. Christianity elided this circularity by declaring man to be made in the image of his creator, entitling each individual human to be regarded as possessing inviolable rights and entitlements, in particular imposing on his society the responsibility to respect and protect his moral and biological needs. But, more and more — and acceleratingly in the time of the virus — we see ourselves not as unity of body and soul, but as hunks of potentially infected meat, each of us striving every moment to protect ourselves from the others. Where this will take us we can for the moment only guess. Already it has taken us to places we could scarcely have dreamed about six months ago. We queue six foot apart, speak to one another through strips of cloth and dance like Elvis to avoid one another as we pass in the street. Are we moving towards a world in which Hazmat suits will be mandatory at all times, where organ lofts will be dismantled for fear of deadly aerosols dropping from on high, where bubble kits will be banned as lethal weapons, where moshing will be looked back upon as we now look back on slavery? One thing is for sure: the consequences of all this for romance — which is to say for human regeneration — can scarcely be exaggerated.
Health has long been an integral and central element of the menu of human rights and entitlements that bore witness to the essential dignity of every human being. Until now, this has been — more or less — regarded as primarily an individual right to health, which socially and politically rinses down to a right to free healthcare in the event that someone cannot not provide for himself. This paradigm has now been flipped by Covid-19. It has hitherto been uncontroversially implicit that our bodies are designed to preserve our own lives by expelling toxic waste. Now this process has been redefined as a function offering extreme risk to the lives and well-being of bystanders, the game has changed out of all recognition.
In his short blog essay, Biosecutiry and Politics, Giorgio Agamben predicts that ‘so-called “social distancing” will become the model of politics that awaits us’. He cites Patrick Zylberman, in Tempêtes microbiennes (Gallimard 2013), who described a future process by which worst-scenario ‘health terror’ becomes the instrument of soft tyranny. Seven years ago, Zylberman described the coming apparatus for ‘a new paradigm of governance of men and things’, this involving ‘the total organization of the body of citizens in a way that strengthens maximum adherence to institutions of government, producing a sort of superlative good citizenship in which imposed obligations are presented as evidence of altruism and the citizen no longer has a right to health (health safety) but becomes juridically obliged to health (biosecurity).’
The missing part from this crystal-clear description is the meddling in the human imagination currently underway — by which men and women, little boys and little girls, are being taught to look at one another as civilised humans have never looked upon one another before, and for good reasons. Until now, there have seemed to be good reasons for maintaining a distinction between doctors and vets. But the blanking out of the human face and gaze, the flipping of our perceptions of our fellow human entities; the reduction of the person to the basest animalistic, biological, not to say bacterilogical and virological understandings; all these shifts would open us to possibilities for redefining the human that have not occured in the imagination of the West for thousands of years.
Agamben concludes: ‘It is legitimate to ask whether such a society can still be defined as human or whether the loss of sensible relations, of the face, of friendship, of love can be truly compensated for by an abstract and presumably completely fictitious health security.’ But this risks being just one more reduction. The more ominous aspect is that nothing of this is meant to be compensatory: it is intended purely as a means of supplanting the human spirit with the phlegmatism of the herd.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.